Fear-Based Spending

Let me start by saying that safety is good, and it is sensible to spend money on it. The auto industry howled miserably about the terrible increase in manufacturing costs that would accompany mandatory seatbelts, but it was probably worth it, because seatbelts save a lot of lives. But the line between prudent precaution and baseless fear can be hard to see, and can lead us to expend effort and money on the prevention of remote risks.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with an abundance of caution (except, you know, when there is), but it’s interesting to consider the sensible and not-so-sensible ways we spend money. I doubt anyone ever went broke buying a Brita water filter in New York City, but it is basically a waste of $25 in a city with some of the finest tap water in the country. And why spend an extra $100 to have a baby video monitor rather than an audio model? Have you ever watched a baby sleep? It is boring. (Besides, the audio version is perfectly adequate for sitting on your across-the-street neighbor’s stoop and having a margarita after your infant is in bed. Or so I’ve heard.)

And yet, we spend this money.

Josh Michtom’s First Job: Helping Teach Argentinians English

The joy of a given job often comes down not to the salary but the intangibles: coworkers, setting, commute, and the like. This is doubly so in our teenage years.

Concerning Inflation, Pants, and Getting Old

This is how it starts. This is the feeling of turning into an old person.

I am aware, and have made my peace with, the much remarked-upon phenomenon of musical tastes frozen at the time of adolescence. While I try to make forays into This Noisy Music All The Kids Are Listening To, I always come back to Big Daddy Kane, KRS-1, EPMD, and the like. I will be this way until I die, and it’s OK. But there is another way I am stuck: in my conception of What Pants Should Cost. This is much more problematic.

I moved out of my father’s house when I was 17, and I have been solely in charge of pants acquisition during the 20 years since (with some periodic, half-hearted intervention from romantic partners). In those two decades, I have become appreciably better at many of the things I started doing at 17, but not buying pants. I am irrevocably stuck with the notion that I should be able to acquire a decent pair of khakis or other office-worthy slacks for $25.

Are Land Lines Worth It?

I have not had a land line for about eight years. My children, who are seven and 10, have no concept of a land line. To them, phones go with you. But apparently, if research by the fly-by-night outfit known as the Centers for Disease Control is to be believed, most people still have land lines—not as many as before, but still a majority. The only demographic group in which a majority of people have only cell phones is poor people.

This yields many interesting insights about poor people, but leaves me with a big question about not-poor people: why do they keep their land lines? I realize that land lines aren’t very expensive, and that not-poor people pay for a lot of things they don’t need, but why land lines?

I suppose, theoretically, that land lines are handy in a prolonged power outage, but really, is that how we’re living? Are we keeping our ham radios and pagers and switching over to gas stoves in anticipation of electrical grid failures?

Or is there something else wonderful about land lines that I’m missing? Go ahead, dear readers, sing me their praises.


Photo by the author.

Wealthy People Agitated by Real Estate Trend

What interesting lessons about personal finance and the economy can we take away from the fact that web sites like AirBnB and VRBO are upending the market for $1,000-a-night rentals in the Hamptons? Probably none. But it is marvelous to know that there is a therapist in East Hampton willing to report with a straight face that “one of her patients’ top anxieties these days [is] the explosion of short-term rentals.”

The rich really are different than you and me, aren’t they?


Photo by the author.

Hobby Lobby Ruling Isn’t Just Anti-Woman; It’s Anti-Employee

My twitter feed lit up this morning with rueful jokes that the only hope women have of maintaining any reproductive freedom is if they incorporate their uteruses. It is easy to look at the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case as anti-woman. Frankly, it’s hard to argue that it’s not anti-woman, given the court’s care in limiting the reach of its ruling to contraceptive methods used by women. It’s also not hard to see how the decision, although technically about contraceptives, is also anti-abortion.

How Americans Think About Fairness and the Economy

There is massive new Pew Research Center poll (185 glorious pdf pages) that dissects the attitudes of Americans on all sorts of things. There is much to mull over, starting with the study’s division of the American populace into eight ideological groups: Solid Liberals (all left all the time; like me, more or less), Steadfast Conservatives (fiscally and socially conservative), Business Conservatives (corporatist, but not so down on gays and immigrants), Young Outsiders (socially liberal Republicans), Hard-Pressed Skeptics (left-leaning, working class, disillusioned), Next-Generation Liberals (like the Solid Liberals, but unconvinced of the need for social programs or anti-discrimination legislation), Faith and Family Left (like the Solid Liberals, but homophobic), and (boringly) Bystanders, who are what they sound like: disengaged and uninformed.

These groups break down mostly as you’d expect (although the right is more polarized than the left). The study is full of charts that show the spread of each group’s opinions across some typical left-right divide, and they all pretty much look like this one:

Raising Kids to Trust People but Distrust Corporations

My children are seven and 10 years old, and in teaching them to navigate the world, I find myself swimming against a great tide of distrust in the world. Despite data to the contrary, the prevailing notion among the middle class parents I meet through my kids’ suburban school is that children today simply cannot do the things that we did as children because there are too many lurking perils, principally in the form of bad people who will do bad things if given half a chance. I try to counter this notion, urging my boys to go outside, to explore the blocks surrounding our building, to make the world their own. Of course they know not to get into a stranger’s car, but I think they also know that most strangers are just people like us, people with kids of their own and jobs and places to go. Even when we talk about the people I represent in court (children charged with crimes and adults accused of abusing their children), I try to put bad deeds in the context of complex circumstances: “People are generally good,” I always tell them.

But then this: the 10-year-old is playing some seemingly innocuous game on the iPad when he asks, “Dad, what’s your email address?”

I start to tell him, then hesitate. “Why?”

“It says that if I sign up to get some emails, I can get free points in this game and…”

“Forget it,” I say. “It’s a scam.”

“What do you mean, a scam? They just want to send emails! And it’s the only way to advance to the next level!”

Of course. He thinks people are generally good. What could be the harm in sharing my email address with the folks who already proved how thoughtful they were by providing us with a FREE IPAD GAME?

So that is the dilemma: In everyday interactions, most people are good and kind. But when they organize themselves into corporations, most people are trying to get over EVERY TIME.

The Kinds of Work We (Should Not) Do for Free

People in the creative fields perennially suffer requests to do for free what they usually do for pay. This phenomenon is not unremarked-upon, and not particularly surprising in an economy where all sorts of labor is put out to bid in a way that encourages workers to undercut one another.

A general rule in our handbook for getting by in the freelance economy should definitely be DON’T WORK FOR FREE. Remember, the whole point of the freelance economy is that it delivers labor to to employers more cheaply because there is an endless supply of strugglers waiting to work for nothing more than the promise of exposure or future paid work.

But are there exceptions to that general rule? Of course there are exceptions. Jessica Hische has created a handy flowchart at the appropriately named shouldiworkforfree.com to help you through the decision, but based on personal experience, I would posit an even simpler set of rules. First, put aside any work where you are hoping for exposure or future paid work. That’s a fool’s game. All remaining free work will fall into one of two categories:

Concerning Public Assistance, Shame, and Healthy Eating

From a website I was surprised to find myself perusing, since it’s called “Christ and Pop Culture” (neither of which interests me greatly), here is an interesting first-person account of trying to use WIC vouchers at Whole Foods (spoiler: you can’t).

Tips For Hustling

The New Financial Advice is shaping up to be a real bummer: if we know anything, it is that we should expect to earn and achieve less, to be unemployed more, to carry debt always, and not to live where we want, but where we can. But beyond accommodating ourselves mentally to straitened circumstances, what shall we do? The answer, it seems, is that we shall hustle.

Is Air Conditioning Worth It?

I am the worst kind of curmudgeon, a scolding old man in a young man’s body, forever decrying the needless conveniences of the modern era. Not surprisingly, at this time of year, I turn my luddite ire on air conditioners, which have always struck me as the height of needless luxury, at least for those among us who are able-bodied and not afflicted with respiratory problems. As such, I have always happily and blithely assumed that air conditioners impose a crippling cost, but it turns out that it’s between $40 and $120 a month, which isn’t nothing, but isn’t plutocrat money either.